Charlie Portlock opens a window into the world of the game-shoot keeper
Make friends with a gamekeeper, says Charlie, for your mutual benefit
G amekeepers are busy people who work hard continually to solve a wide variety of problems. We can help them in this task if we’re well informed and sensitive to their needs. This month, we’ll be looking at building our understanding of what goes into running a successful shoot, and investigating when the airgunner might be able to prove his/her utility. I’m grateful to apprentice keeper, Patrick Dickson, who took some time out of his busy week to share some of the challenges that he faces in the job, and to discuss how diligent and proactive airgunners might be part of the solution.
Traditionally, the gamekeeper was charged with organising the sporting activities of a country estate. Primarily, this meant maintaining and increasing the populations of quarry species through habitat management, feeding and predator control, as well as ensuring that his employer and their guests were well looked after during their sporting pursuits. These include a variety of activities from lowland and upland deer stalking to driven grouse, pheasant and partridge shooting, as well as rough shooting (walked up) and waterfowling.
The head keeper would also have been responsible for deterring poachers as well as overseeing estate security. On more traditional landed estates this role has remained largely the same, whilst growing to incorporate other elements like habitat management.
There are now also a great number of small, independent shoots across the UK run as syndicates by collections of friends, farmers and neighbours. In addition to these less financially minded shooting enterprises, there are many largescale commercial shoots run purely for profit. The airgunner can be of great utility to all of the above, but if you’ve never been beating or driven shooting, this world can seem a little mysterious. So just what can we do to help out and to increase our shooting opportunities?
THE PROBLEM SOLVER
We’ve talked before about the need to offer something to keepers and landowners when looking for permission, and Patrick echoed this sentiment when I asked him how airgunners can get best get a boot in the door.
“Come beating, be polite and interactive, and do a good job. Simple.”
By far the best way to build trust and a working relationship with a shoot is to go beating (driving the birds to the guns) from October to February. It’s normally paid, circa £25.00 per day, although on smaller shoots it won’t be, and everybody just shares the workload. Once you’re known to your local keeper or shooting syndicate, it helps to be able to offer a few solutions to their problems.
“One of the biggest jobs is in March when we need to get a huge net over the laying pens to keep out birds of prey and carriers of diseases.”
For many keepers the spring is
a busy time of year as they work to prepare the laying, rearing and release pens and control predators that might enter these enclosures to take eggs or young birds. In terms of airgunning, rats, squirrels and corvids all present problems because they’re persistent and clever. Woodland rabbits can also be an issue from March until the birds are released in the autumn because they can undermine the wire and create holes for small predators like stoats, and even foxes, to use as entry points.
In light of the above, airgunners can start by beating and then offer to help out with the laying pens. After that, they should find themselves trusted and in a position to approach the subject of shooting, if it hasn’t already arisen. Not all keepers use air rifles because they often need to carry something more versatile to deal with corvids on the wing, as well as squirrels and foxes, and so a 12 bore shotgun is standard. However, keepers will be keen for you to help to control rats, squirrels and corvids because it makes their job easier.
Grey squirrels can present problems in the laying pen. It’s here that the hen birds lay the eggs that are then sat upon in situ, or more often collected for incubation, hatching and release. Squirrels will eat eggs, as will rats, and both species will happily raid grain feeders all year round, particularly in the winter when other food is scarce. Squirrels can also pose a serious threat to hardwood saplings if their numbers aren’t kept in check. If a shoot has a long-term habitat management strategy for both shooting, bio- diversity and forestry, then keeping young trees alive to provide cover, timber and nesting sites is important. Some squirrels are useful in terms of bio- diversity, but keepers will always appreciate a helping and trusted hand in keeping their numbers down.
I live next to a shoot that borders
some pasture, and in four years I’ve never seen a magpie. There’s a good reason for this, not least because corvids predate upon young lambs and ewes but also because they’ll happily take pheasant eggs and destroy the nesting sites of many birds. Corvids are incredibly intelligent; they have advanced social structures and in the case of crows, a well evidenced ability to use language. They’re wary, wily and evasive. I very rarely shoot them personally, but if you can bag one or two of these birds you’ll be doing any farmer or keeper a favour.
INTO THE WILD
Every year, some lucky birds escape the guns and return to the wild. Although the majority of hens will be rounded up and wintered in relative security and comfort, this small percentage will breed, nest and rear young completely naturally. This will almost certainly be the case on small, syndicated rough shoots that only host two or three walked up days per year for friends and neighbours, and it’s here that the airgunner can really make a difference. In the absence of commercial interests or dedicated funding from a landowner, the part-time keepers will likely have all of the above problems without the resources to solve them. Although smaller private shoots are likely to be less well known, there will be people in the beating of any larger shoot who will either be part of such an enterprise or will know people who are. Beating really is the best way in to more shooting opportunities. Contact the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (www. basc.org.uk) for more information about where to start.
The quiet report of an air rifle is a distinct advantage when shooting around pens because it doesn’t distress the birds prior to the shooting season in the same way that a shotgun would. Stressed birds don’t hold well in one area and if they’re not concentrated in one place then they don’t fly well. A keeper’s reputation is built upon how his/her birds fly. The air rifle is also seen as a safe option in areas where there are livestock or footpaths, enabling the keeper to carry out squirrel, rat or corvid control in an understated manner. Although the majority of this will involve lethal or live trapping, a dedicated and consistent person with an air rifle can very easily be part of the solution to a variety of keepering conundrums.
I asked Patrick if he’d be willing to let a helpful, willing beater do some shooting around the pens. He was cautious.
“I’d probably say yes, but give them certain places to go. My worry would be that if the birds were down (July onwards) and I’d said that they could shoot some squirrels, that they might be going off where they shouldn’t be. That would be a big no no. They’d need to stick to the areas we agreed on and only shoot what we agreed.”
Both amateur and professional keepers share a great deal of common interests with airgunners. Even if you don’t currently know of any shoots local to you, it’s very likely that the landowners and farmers of your existing permissions do, and it doesn’t take a great deal of complex networking to forge some new connections if you know how best to approach the situation. It also pays to be aware of the current political environment. Shooting sports are under an increasing amount of pressure and are often the subject of negative publicity, particularly around the issues of commercial shoots burying their birds, grouse moor management and raptor persecution. This could understandably make people increasingly wary of accepting help from unknown quarters until trust has been established, and a slow and steady approach is advisable. Thankfully, airgunners are in the perfect position to do just that. Best. Charlie.
“Both amateur and professional keepers share a great deal of common interests with airgunners”
ABOVE: I joined Patrick on his rounds
ABOVE: Small shoots also need your help
RIGHT: Patrick didn’t want to put the Weihrauch down
FAR RIGHT: The handsome pheasant is the number one game bird in the UK